Like so many of their mid-aughts contemporaries, Maxïmo Park have struggled to uphold the standard they set with their debut record, 2005’s A Certain Trigger. They can’t take all of the blame though; it’s like overpreparing for a job interview. There’s plenty of time to make the preparation and effort for that first impression, but afterwards everything is in real time. While there’s nothing ostensibly wrong with The National Health, the English quintet are plainly running out of steam.
The National Health appears to be Maxïmo Park’s crack at making a political statement, but this is not truly a political record. The title track and “Waves of Fear” casually explore societal issues, but the predominant themes are love and romance. The prospective of thoughtful, emotional or insightful music is always lingering, but the record’s lack of depth is disappointing.
The saving grace is the band’s energy and commitment to its own cause. They wade through the hookless patches diligently, their chemistry never wavering, but the music itself is another kettle of fish. Simultaneously impassioned and strained, Maxïmo Park spend more time searching for inspiration than projecting it.
After a quick introduction, the title track cranks up the urgency dial, spitting out crunchy bursts of guitar and drums. Smith offers an enthusiastic vocal performance, all of which makes for a strong start, but things deteriorate quickly. “The Undercurrents” and “Reluctant Love” are both gooey ballads that scrape by on band dynamics. The verses feel open-ended and faceless, as if Smith isn’t writing for an actual person, but for a crowd to sing along to. “Write This Down” elegantly blends electro-pop and rock, but it makes for an oddly unsatisfying three minutes.
The National Health has sporadic flashes of burnish and acuity, but it struggles with consistency, a problem that Maxïmo Park have encountered in the past. “Hips and Lips” strives for a more airwaves-friendly sound, with an obvious Bowie influence, primordial synths and a horn section. Despite its outward catchiness, it feels very safe for a band that can snarl as well as it swoons. Fragments of other modern English bands can be found on several songs, too. On “Until the Earth Would Open,” they sound like fellow countrymen the Kooks, with spry, serrated pulses of guitar, terse percussion and untidy vocal rhythms. “Wolf Among Men” sounds like a less belligerent, lovesick version of The Futureheads.
“Banlieue” strikes up a much darker tone, but its atmosphere becomes polluted with half-baked lyrics: “Here come the animals/ Two by two/ Makes my body feel we’re through.” The words become a more sizeable problem later on. Despite its alt-radio gleam, “This is What Becomes of the Broken Hearted” ultimately buckles under the flimsiness of Smith’s words: “Commitment never seemed like a risk/ But that’s the way it is.”
Even if they aren’t innovating, Maxïmo Park are too sturdy and experienced to make a poor album. Fans of the band will surely find something to like, but the band’s early potential seems to be waning with each release. The National Health is not a poor effort, it’s just woefully undistinguished.